Golden Gate Bridge in the fog

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March 30, 2016

Why Golden Gate? The History Behind the Name

Why isn’t the Golden Gate Bridge painted bright yellow-gold? Isn’t it named for the California Gold Rush, as in “this way to the gold mines, we’re gonna strike it rich?’’ Actually, no, and no.

The world-renowned bridge is named for the Golden Gate Strait, the narrow, turbulent, 300-foot-deep stretch of water below the bridge that links the Pacific Ocean on the west to San Francisco Bay on the east. As for the strait, its name slightly predates the 1849 start of the Gold Rush and was inspired by something else entirely. There’s a story behind that, one of many in this storied city.

In 1846, when soldier, explorer and future presidential candidate John C. Fremont saw the watery trench that breached the range of coastal hills on the western edge of otherwise landlocked San Francisco Bay, it reminded him of another beautiful landlocked harbor: the Golden Horn of the Bosporus in Constantinople, now Istanbul. Fremont used a Greek term to name it: Chrysopylae - in English, Golden Gate. In his 1848 “Geographical Memoir,’’ Fremont added another layer of meaning: The rugged opening to the Pacific, he wrote, is “a golden gate to trade with the Orient.’’

It was about time. European ships sailed by the narrow opening for two centuries without seeing it. In the thick, swirling coastal fogs of summer, even intrepid navigators like Sir Francis Drake passed by the hidden Golden Gate without sailing through it. In 1769, a Spanish scouting party finally spotted the passage, though they were on land at the time. Not until 1775, when Spain’s Juan de Ayala took his ship San Carlos through this watery notch in the hills, did Europeans sail into the Bay.

By the early 20th century, “the Golden Gate” was a well-established place-name. It was a cinch the magnificent new bridge spanning the strait would be named for it: the Golden Gate Bridge. Oh, and the color? The bridge was painted an orange vermillion dubbed International Orange prior to its opening in 1937 because the color stands out against the spectacular backdrop of sea, land and seasonal fog.

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